Stonehenge, Part 1
Visiting ancient Stonehenge is a surprising experience in several ways, from the very moment of arrival. One expects to see the stones from a distance, as most standing stones are at the top of a hill or some other prominent place, but not so here. One may also think there should be a creepy feeling about the site, some sense of forbiddance, like history burnt onto the land. Many other similar sites have a foreboding air, echoes of the crimes against humanity committed on the land, but not Stonehenge. And finally, nothing will ever quite prepare you for the sheer size of the stones themselves.
Driving west along the A303 from Amesbury, at the heart of Salisbury Plains, Wiltshire, you might be forgiven for missing this, one of the most ancient of sites in England. Its nestled in a basin, not easily visible from the road. The structure is arguably older then the sphinx and the pyramids, and monumentally large when compared with other standing stones around Britain. Each stone looms as high as the height of a double-decker bus, the tallest stone measuring approximately 22 feet.
There are several sets of standing stones in the surrounding area of Amesbury. There are also several sets of irregularities in the land, Stonehenge being the most prominent in terms of both the standing stones and land distortions. The Stonehenge of today is not the original. The monument took 700 years to be erected and consisted of three separate building phases. The original work, thought to date to around 3050 B.C., was nothing more than a circular ditch. A 12th-century historian was one of the first people to mention the stones. Myths said that giants had brought the stones from Africa, and that they had been shipped to Ireland before finally arriving at their resting place. Some say this was the work of devils and others say that Merlin the Magical transported them across the Irish Sea.
The main basin itself is about 200 meters in diameter. The circular ditch creates the effect that the site curls up at the edges, like the pockmark of a huge asteroid fallen on the land. Two mounds, called barrows, project upon the skyline like massive molehills. The barrows are thought to be burial chambers, yet there is no sense of mourning on this land. The banks that surround the site create a frame for the plain of the centre. The land within the basin is flat and the stones project like giant croquet pins welded to the land. There are several circular structures, some ditches, others rings of stone, and there, within the centre of the enormous horseshoe, lies the altar stone.
The altar stone initially had been thought to have been the ancient Druids place of ritual activity. More recent thinking is that this was not the site of sacrificial brutality, since the structure predates the Druids by approximately 2,000 years. It certainly has an air of joy, of tranquillity, of praise for the gods of yesteryear.
Since the 18th century, the sites axis has been verified to astronomically align with the dawn horizon on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. The entrance of the circle has been altered over history to compensate for astronomic variances. Some studies claim that these alignments are purely fortuitous and were not initially planned when the structures were built. However, various parts of the site align with the rising and setting of both the Sun and Moon. Whether or not this was intended is questionable, but in a time where the Sun and Moon held such prominent places in the belief systems, surely one can be accused of being overly skeptical by ruling these connections out. Perhaps this was a primitive astrological chart embedded on the land.
The current Druid community has adopted the site and meets there at the summer solstice to worship. It is doubtful if we will ever be 100 percent sure of Stonehenges purpose. Was it an archaic calendar, a monumental astronomical device, a temple of worship, a burial site? We will never really know.
Watch for Stonehenge, Part 2, coming in the October issue of Metamorphosis.